Pornified and Female Chauvinist Pigs

Is Porn Really Transforming Our Sex Lives?
New books dissected over email.
Sept. 20 2005 2:56 AM

Pornified and Female Chauvinist Pigs

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Hi Wendy and Meghan,

We're supposed to grapple over two new and pretty alarmist books on the state of sexual culture in America: Pornified: How Pornography Is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families, by Pamela Paul; and Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, by Ariel Levy. There are a lot of overlaps between them: Both describe the dire effects the rising cultural acceptability of porn has on male-female relationships and on female self-esteem. Paul presents a parade of dismal male porn addicts who can't relate to real women; Levy focuses on young women who've decided (wrongly, she thinks) that porn and its motifs can be empowering for gals. Both paint a depressingly disconnected world, like Sartre's No Exit for the porn age: Women want intimacy with men, men want fantasy sex with porn stars, and the porn stars presumably just want a paycheck. No one's getting much pleasure. It's all alienated, compulsive masturbation, cartoonish artificial breasts, and incessant pop-up ads.

Let's start with Pornified. I must confess that this book made me very cranky. Not about the rise of porn, but about the decline of cultural criticism: Paul's analysis is as compartmentalized and shallow as the sex lives of her subjects. She has her nose pressed so firmly against porn culture that she's utterly blinkered about the rest of society, or history, or politics; it's as if sexuality occupied some autonomous world of its own. (Like a porn set.)

Here are a few of the many bad things Paul blames on porn: failing relationships, men's flight from intimacy, men judging women by harsh appearance standards, men liking large breasts, female body-image issues, general female insecurity, lack of sexual foreplay, male impotence, men demanding more oral sex, infrequent sex among couples—just about everything but acne. (Yes, a single explanation for every social ill is very convenient.) I'm no historian, but I'm under the impression that all these behaviors and predispositions long preceded the rise of porn. Men treat women like sex objects? Not exactly new: Consider the brilliant, crazy Valerie Solanas' 1967 S.C.U.M. Manifesto: "It's often said that men use women. Use them for what? Surely not pleasure." Women are romantically disappointed in men? Read—gosh, it's such an endless list—the collected stories of Dorothy Parker. Men are in flight from intimacy? I know from careful study of The New Yorker cartoons that when television was invented, husbands planted themselves on the couch and have yet to look up—unless it's to play golf, poker, flee to the office, or have affairs, all of which wives have been miffed about for decades.

So, when exactly was the golden age of relationship bliss that Paul thinks porn has torn asunder?

Wendy, I think that to understand anything about the popularity of porn, we have look beyond porn. For instance, let's notice that the mainstreaming of porn occupies the same cultural moment as the rise of abstinence-only education (with which it technically complies). I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that the two aren't exactly unrelated: They're both products of a culture that's deeply conflicted and hypocritical about sex.

Take a glance at the rest of the Internet for a bit of cultural context. What comprises the majority of Web sites, aside from porn? Religion and shopping. A seething cultural compost of sexual prohibition and compulsive consumption—here's fertile soil for a thriving porn commerce. Paul seems weirdly surprised to discover that so many religious types—clergy members and conservative Christians—have sex-addiction issues. Pamela: Meet Jimmy Swaggart. Public virtue and private lechery are also long-standing features of American sexual culture, from TheScarlet Letter to the Clinton impeachment committee. We're a culture that hates and fears sex, but can't get enough of it.

Porn may make a convenient scapegoat for everything that's appalling in the world these days, but new technologies or genres like Internet porn only thrive when they confirm dispositions already inherent in the culture. What I'm saying is that Paul mistakes a symptom for a cause: It's a muddled porno-determinism. Take a deeply puritanical society that loves its sexual hypocrisy, in which gender and power dynamics are in flux. Add factors like increasing female financial independence, which ups the demands women are making on relationships. Then add the fact that feminism has put male sexual behavior under scrutiny in the workplace, where, by the way, economic anxiety and job stress are rampant. What social forms would be likely to flourish in such a context? Hey, I know: Internet porn! But does porn produce the versions of anomic sexuality and relationship disconnection that Paul is so distressed by? It didn't need to.

Many of the men Paul interviewed say that if faced with a choice between their girlfriends and porn, they'd have to give up the girlfriends. Yet Paul seems convinced that minus porn, somehow these guys would be fulfilling all the intimacy needs of their partners. Sorry, but who's the compulsive fantasist?

That's a segue to Female Chauvinist Pigs, Wendy, which I hope you will manage to toss into the mix. For some women, porn is a rival, but for others—Levy's subjects—porn's a fun new pal.

Over to you.

Laura

Laura Kipnis' new book, How To Become a Scandal, will be out in paperback in September. Her previous books include Against Love: A Polemic, and The Female Thing: Dirt, Sex, Envy, Vulnerability.